Snow science: Crystal clues to climate change, watersheds In this March 9, 2018 image taken from video, Patrick Alexander, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, uses a spectrometer to measure light radiating off a snowpack in Highmount, N.Y. (AP Photo/Michael Hill/Marco Tedesco/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University via AP)
Snow science: Crystal clues to climate change, watersheds
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Capturing snowflakes isn't as easy as sticking out your tongue.

At least not when you're trying to capture them for scientific study. This involves isolating the tiniest of crystals on a metal card. It is printed with grid lines. And then you must quickly placing them under a microscope to be photographed.

"They are very tiny and they are close to the melting point." That's according to Marco Tedesco of Columbia University. "So as soon as they fall, they will melt."

Tedesco recently led a team of three researchers who trudged through the snowy hills of New York's Catskill Mountains. They took cameras and brushes. They also took shovels, a drone and a spectrometer with them. They collected the most fine-grained details about freshly fallen snowflakes. And they noted how snowflakes evolve once they settle to the ground.

That data could be used to provide clues to the changing climate. It could also validate the satellite models used for weather predictions. And it could provide additional information on the snow that falls into New York's City's upstate watershed, flows into reservoirs and fills the faucets of some 9 million people.

"We're talking about sub-millimeter objects." That's what Tedesco said as he stood in shin-deep snow. "Once they get together, they have the power, really, to shape our planet."

This is the pilot stage of the "X-Snow" project. Organizers hope the project will involve dozens of volunteers collecting snowflake samples next winter. The specimens Tedesco spied under his microscope on a recent snowy day were varied. They displayed more rounded edges and irregularities than the classic crystalline forms. This is characteristic of flakes formed up high in warmer air.

Pictures and video from the drone will be used to create a three-dimensional model of the snow's surface. Patrick Alexander is a postdoctoral researcher. He trudged though the snow with a wand attached to a backpack spectrometer. It measures how much sunlight the snow on the ground is reflecting. This a factor in determining how fast it will melt. Later, Alexander got down on his belly in the field to take infrared pictures of the snow's layers and its grain size.

"There are a lot of things that happen that we can't see with our eyes," said Tedesco. He is a snow and ice scientist at Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. "When snow melts and re-freezes, the grains get bigger. And as the grains get bigger the snow absorbs more solar radiation."

Tedesco grew up in southern Italy near Naples. He never even saw snow until he was 6 years old. But as a scientist, he has logged time studying ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. And he has studied snow hydrology in the Rockies and the Dolomites. He said snow in the Eastern U.S. has its own character. It tends to be moister than the powdery snow that falls in higher elevation in the West.

Tedesco hopes that a cadre of committed volunteers in the Catskills and the New York City area can take snowflake and snow depth samples next winter. Volunteers won't need an expensive backpack spectrometer. He recommends a $17 magnifying lens that clips onto their phone, a ruler, and a GPS application. He also recommends a print-out version of the postcard-sized metal card Tedesco uses to examine fresh snowflakes.

Enlisting volunteers to take snowflake photos is novel and potentially useful, said Noah Molotch. He is director of The Center for Water, Earth Science and Technology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Molotch is not involved in the project. He said the pictures will give information about atmospheric conditions and could be useful in the study of climate change.

"Snowflakes are among the most beautiful things in nature," he said. "And the more we can do to document that and get people interested and excited about that, I think is great."

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
What is the relationship between snow and crystals?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (28)
  • bear-
    3/26/2018 - 12:07 p.m.

    That is really cool how they photograph snowflakes.

  • 21eel-
    3/26/2018 - 12:07 p.m.

    I think that it is cool that they are going to be able to change the climate and what not. If they could do that we could change it to rain when its really, really hot and then we could cool off.

  • panda-
    3/26/2018 - 12:07 p.m.

    That is cool how they are related.

  • 21elk-
    3/26/2018 - 12:08 p.m.

    its crazy how there can be 1 foot of snow. I love how snow flakes are not the same just like people. I can not imagine growing up without snow like that scientist. I think it is cool that we can find so much information with one snow flake. and I love how sparkly the snow is.

  • bird-
    3/26/2018 - 12:08 p.m.

    I think it will be cool to see a fool snowflake because every snowflake is different and each of them are unique.

  • 21cat-
    3/26/2018 - 12:09 p.m.

    I think that their tools are very cool and how you can see the infrared picture of the snow. I hope more volunteers come and this study keeps finding new things about snow.

  • 21cow-
    3/26/2018 - 12:10 p.m.

    It is awesome that the snowflakes can really melt that fast. And I also like the "X-Snow" project that they are thinking about making. I thought this article was very interesting.

  • 21wolf-
    3/26/2018 - 12:11 p.m.

    The relationship between snow and crystals are that snowflakes are among the most beautiful things in nature and crystal are so bright and shiny. That is the relationship between snow and crystals.

  • ethanm-orv
    5/08/2018 - 02:50 p.m.

    I love science

  • destinys-orv
    5/11/2018 - 10:00 a.m.

    will since you asked i think that crystals are more nicer then snow and snow goes away very fast.

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